Say “The Daily Show,” and you’re likely to think of Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah. Odds are you won’t think of Craig Kilborn, whose stint as the very first “Daily Show” host (1996-1998) is but faintly remembered.
Because Stewart’s tenure (1999 to 2015) became such a spectacular, culture-shaping success, and because Comedy Central’s mock-newscast became so closely associated with him, it was fascinating to learn from Chris Smith’s oral history of “The Daily Show” how much resistance Stewart encountered from Kilborn holdovers on the writing staff when he took over as anchor.
The writers had amassed a lot of power during the Kilborn years, and their sensibilities did not dovetail with Stewart’s. “As much as I loved the original writers, I created some little monsters,’' said “Daily Show’' cocreator Lizz Winstead. Recalled Chris Regan, a writer for Stewart: “It was tense... There was a lot of conflict between Jon and the Kilborn writers.’'
So tense, in fact, that a couple of months after he took over, the writers called him into their office and said, according to Stewart: “You can’t change our jokes anymore.’' Stewart stewed about it for a couple of days, then went back into the writers’ office and “basically told them all to [expletive] off.’' Stewart told them: “You work for me. And if you don’t like the direction, OK, I get that. Don’t work here.‘'
“It was open hostility,’' Stewart told Smith. “It became that sense of ‘OK, let’s arm-wrestle’.‘'
Essentially, the conflict derived from Stewart’s determination to sharpen the show’s point of view by tightening its focus on politics and the media. He believed the Kilborn-era writers were overly prone to broad humor and to making fun of easy targets. Stewart wanted to refashion the sensibility, tone, and mission of “The Daily Show’' so that its satire directly skewered the powerful, night after night. His goal was for “The Daily Show’' to be “pointed, purposeful, intentional, surgical,’' he told Smith.
Justin Melkmann, who was a “Daily Show’' producer under both Kilborn and Stewart, said: “With Jon, we went from creating the news — creating funny spoof headlines — to making fun of the news. That was a big change.‘'
One of those changes that worked out pretty well.